Nestled just below the Rocky Mountains, Denver sits at an almost perfect panoramic spot, and is one of the gateways to the state’s best ski resorts. As the capital of the Centennial State, this great city offers great outdoors attractions, cultural events, sports, food, and fantastic pints of beer. If you have 48 hours, you can get a great taste of what Denver has to offer, and you may want to come back for another 48 soon after you leave.
If this is your first time flying into Denver, remember that they call it the Mile High City for a reason, the actual city elevation is one mile above sea-level. Most visitors will experience a bit of altitude discomfort (or sickness), since such high elevation can play a mean trick to non-residents. Unless you live in a city that is atop a mountain, you will tire a bit quicker, may get headaches, and, if you have an alcoholic beverage you may feel tipsy a bit faster than usual. On the first day, take it easy, remember to drink plenty of water and rest.
Start the day of at Sam’s #3 Diner on Curtis St. Yes, just go ahead and ask for the Denver Omelet, and you will see (and taste the difference). No, tomatoes are not included…that would make it a Western. Not only will you enjoy the food and great coffee, but this cute little diner established back in 1927 has kept all the charm and patina from taking care of locals and visitors for 90 years.
After breakfast, head down the street through the Civic Center Park and on to the State Capitol Building. There are daily tours you can take, but the best part is the 99-step staircase into a fantastic vista of the mountains and the city skyline. Stop at the 13th step to official stand at Mile High – the official elevation of Colorado’s capital.
The rest of the morning, you can enjoy visiting one or two of Denver’s great museums. A unique place is the Molly Brown House Museum that shares the story of the Titanic’s most famous survivors, as well as the tales of others who made it after the incident. The Denver Art Museum is the largest museum between the West Coast and Chicago. It has a very diverse collection featuring Architecture, Native Art, American and European classics, Asian art as well as works by well-known local and western artists. Remember to use the elevator, since you have already walked a bit this morning and the altitude may get to you by now. Those seven floors full of amazing artifacts and art can be a challenge to walk up and down on your first day.
For lunch, try SubCulture, a great sandwich shop with good drinks and local beer on tap! Try the foot long Aunt Bettie (can you say garlic mojo).
Now that you are rested and your belly is full, it is time to hit the 16th Street shopping area. You have 1.5 miles of shops, boutiques, department stores, and restaurants to check out. Everything from your traditional jeans to local designers, souvenirs, gifts, and whatever you think you can buy at any other mall around the country…just outdoors and surrounded by a great vista of the mountains. On the weekends, there are several street performers, bands, and events to keep your entire afternoon busy.
For dinner, the Saucy Noodle is one of my favorite restaurants ever. If you do not have a reservation, you will be waiting a bit, but it is worth every minute. It may look like a hole-in-the-wall dive when you walk up to it. But after you belly up to the table and order a plate of Mama’s Lasagna, or the Stuffed Shells, the polenta, or (even) the mac and cheese, your body and soul will be thanking me in Italian.
There are plenty of other things to do in Denver, but I suggest you step out of Denver proper and choose one of these two great locations and explore the best of the Rockies.
Option 1: Estes Park
About an hour and a half drive from Downtown Denver, the drive up the mountains is the first real attraction.
Ride ‘em, Cowboy
Start your visit to the park with a horseback ride. Sombrero Ranch offers 1 to 3-hour rides and other specialty packages. It is great for the novice or even the most advanced rider, as well as the young and old. If you want a nice calm horse, ask to ride on Al Pacino or Tiger.
For lunch, try Ed’s Cantina’s Carne Asada Torta (steak sandwich). With other great Mexican favorites, you and your travel companions will find the right dish to refuel after the nice ride that should have taken you through some of the most wonderful scenery in the Rockies.
For some afternoon fun, go to Fun City. Fly down one of the two giant slides that will leave your heart racing. The young, and young at heart, can enjoy bumper boats, go carts, and mini golf. When was the last time you played mini golf?
If games are not your scene, you have two other great choices for the afternoon. Rent a boat in the Lake Estes Marina and sail around this magnificent body of water. Or if you brought your running or hiking shoes, you can hit the Lake Estes Park Loop, a 3.8 mile loop that will take you all around the Valley and connect you to several other trails if you want go for a longer hike. You can also rent a bike at the Marina and ride the trail.
The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern is a great place for dinner. Great home cooking, with a bit of mountain flavor.
Option 2: Visit Boulder
Just 40 minutes north of Denver, this a great place if you like music, artisanal crafts, and the college-town-vibe.
Start the day at Pearl Street mall, another open-air shopping center with boutiques and local artists. Grab a cup of coffee at The Laughing Goat coffee shop…quintessential Boulder (organic, fair trade, “handcrafted” everything).
Spend the rest of the morning rambling through Pearl Street, walking along with the locals and visitors. Check out Boulder’s Arts and Crafts, an artisan owned store.
For tea lovers, take a tour of the Celestial Seasonings factory. You will find herbal, green, decaf, iced, hot, bergamot, and every tea in between, this is actually a really fun tour even if you do not partake of the brew.
The Flatirons are amazing, and I am not talking about the steaks. Those iconic, slanted, ginormous, sandstone mountains that seem to have been cut by the world’s largest sword. The magnificence of these peaks is worth the short drive from Denver. Best time to see them is when they are snowed over, as it accentuates every slant and angle of the Flatirons.
You cannot go to Boulder without swinging by one of their breweries. There are plenty to visit, and here are a few to fill up the rest of your afternoon:
Another 48 Hours
After your first 48 hour trip to Denver, you will want to come back since you have only had a very small taste of what the Mile High City has to offer. Here are a few more ideas for your next 48 hours:
Spend the day in Colorado Springs and visit the Olympic Training Center.
Visit the Budweiser Brewery and see the Clydesdales Horses in Fort Collins.
Take a ride on the Georgetown Railroad Loop up the mountains to the Lebanon Silver Mine.
Go skiing in Winter Park. Drive up in the morning, hit the slopes, and drive back down for dinner.