Lively attractions and easy access to the Rocky Mountains make the Colorado capital well worth your time, says Philip Watson
Friday morning at 7.30am, the Crawford hotel, downtown Denver. I am in the epicentre of the city; the elegant hotel forms part of the recent redevelopment of the historic Union Station terminal, at one time the main railway hub for the Colorado capital. I’m waiting for the lift to take me down for breakfast in one of the 1914 Beaux-Arts building’s many buzzing cafés and restaurants.
Because of the hotel’s unrivalled location, and the hour, I expect the doors to open to a fellow business traveller, or maybe a jet-lagged tourist. I do not expect to see a young couple in full, colour-coordinated ski gear, complete with skis, poles, boots, gloves, goggles, helmets and Go Pro cameras.
They look like they’ve stepped off a ski lift in Switzerland’s upmarket Gstaad – not into an urban US elevator. They tell me a waiting minibus will be whisking them and some friends off to the Loveland Ski Area, 90km and about an hour and a half west of the “Mile-High City”, in the glorious Rocky Mountains.
If it was a weekend during the ski season, they wouldn’t even need the private shuttle – they could
take the newly relaunched ski train direct from Union Station to another popular Denver ski destination, Winter Park, a couple of hours away.
In many ways, my “ski lift” experience is emblematic of a city that is thrillingly active and wholly surprising. The US Bureau of Statistics ranked Denver as the fastestgrowing major city in the US in 2015, and, everywhere you look, it has the feel of a boom town – the cityscape is dominated by cranes and new tower blocks.
The metropolitan area is now home to more than three million people; it’s claimed by Rich Grant and Irene Rawlings in their book 100 Things To Do In Denver
Before You Die that “the Mile-High City is growing on average by a thousand new residents a week”.
It’s certainly true that every millennial you meet seems to be from somewhere else, attracted to Denver by the three “Ms”: money (well, job opportunities – the unemployment rate hovers at around 3 per cent and is one of the lowest in the country); mountains (as well as first-class skiing, the Rockies offer superb hiking, biking, climbing, kayaking and rafting); and marijuana (in 2005 it became the first major US city to legalise cannabis, leading to a mini-boom in weed cultivation, medical use and tourism).
Dubbed the “Wall Street of the West” at the beginning of the 20th century owing to the rise of a small financial district along 17th Street, Denver has always had a strong business culture. Major companies in the area include Molson Coors, Lockheed Martin and United. Its geographical location has also made it a focus for the telecoms industry; communication with both North American coasts, South America, Europe and Asia is possible in the same business day.
Denver International Airport, with its landmark multiple-peaked roof canopy – said to echo both Native American teepees and the Rockies – is now the sixth-busiest in the US, with more than 58 million passengers in 2016. Since April last year, it also has a direct rail link to Union Station; the journey takes 37 minutes and costs US$9 each way.
ART OF THE CITY
That kind of accessibility, and the fact that Denver is a relatively compact walking city claiming a remarkable 300 days of sunshine a year, makes it perfect for extending your trip across a weekend. The weather can be changeable, and, at exactly one mile (1,600 metres) above sea level, you need to protect yourself from the sun’s intensity. Yet Denver is an extremely easy place to enjoy. There is even a free electric shuttle bus along the 16th Street Mall, a mile-long pedestrian promenade designed by architect IM Pei, now fronted mostly by tacky general stores and tourist shops.
Near the southern end of the mall is the Golden Triangle Museum District. Attractions here range from the Denver Art Museum (10am-5pm Tue-Sun, 8pm Fri; US$13; denverartmuseum.org), with its eye-catching Daniel Libeskind extension, to a museum dedicated to the expansive paintings of Clyfford Still (10am-5pm Tue-Sun, 8pm Fri; US$10; clyffordstillmuseum.org), one of the Abstract Expressionist movement’s most influential – if relatively unknown – artists.
The district even has its own Art hotel (thearthotel. com), opened in 2015, which displays a private collection of contemporary works by the likes of Sol LeWitt and Tracey Emin in its dramatic public spaces and 165 rooms.
If you prefer your culture live, then Denver also delivers. It has one of the largest performing arts complexes in the US, with ten venues housing everything from theatre to Broadway shows and a symphony orchestra (denvercenter.org). The 76,000seat Sports Authority Field at Mile High is home to 2016 Super Bowl champions the Broncos, although tickets are hard to come by – every Sunday home game since 1970 has sold out (season runs Sep-Feb).
The city also boasts two legendary music venues along East Colfax Avenue (part of the longest commercial street in the US) – the Bluebird and Ogden theatres, both concert halls that are symbolic of Denver’s eclectic music scene.
LODO OR LOHI?
Head to LoDo (Lower Downtown Denver) to explore regenerating and newly hip historic neighbourhoods with a range of worthwhile diversions – the excellent Tattered Cover bookshop (tatteredcover.com), the sumptuous Art Deco Cruise Room bar at Denver’s oldest hotel, the Oxford (theoxfordhotel.com), and the cool bars and restaurants along Larimer Square. Don’t miss the “brewpub” that sparked Denver’s justly famous craft beer and microbrewing scene, Wynkoop (wynkoop.com).
There is also LoHi (Lower Highlands), just across the South Platte River, worth visiting for the Williams and Graham “speakeasy” alone (williamsandgraham.com) – its wood-panelled backroom bar is hidden behind a tiny “bookshop”. Another way to check out Denver is to jog or cycle – there are a remarkable 137km of paved trails around the city.
And then there is always shopping. As well as more than 160 upmarket stores at Cherry Creek Shopping Centre, 5km southeast of the city centre, there is one downtown flagship store that should not be missed: Rockmount Ranch Wear (rockmount.com). The Western outfitters that introduced the snap-button cowboy shirt to the world – and to Elvis, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant and Eric Clapton – was founded in 1946 by “Papa” Jack Weil, a businessman who worked until the age of 107.
Weil is said to have coined the phrase “The West is not a place, it’s a state of mind”. Denver today may be a hip, forward-thinking city, but it’s still very much connected to that history and belief. It’s a state of mind that, even for a weekend, is well worth entering.
For more information on Denver, including the Mile-High Culture Pass to various attractions (US$30 for three days), see visitdenver.org and colorado.com
Clockwise from top: Denver Art Museum; riverfront cycle paths; Rockmount Ranch Wear; and Denver International Airport
Above: Heading into the Rocky Mountains