Not so long ago, Denver was known as a “cow town” where Stetsons, cowboy shirts and conservative Western sensibilities were the norm. Far from being considered liberal or progressive, the city was famous for John Denver’s folk-rock song Rocky Mountain High and the local delicacy, Rocky Mountain Oysters (bull testicles).
Fast forward to today and Colorado’s capital has almost entirely shed that image. The Mile High City (at 5,280ft, it is exactly one mile above sea level) is open-minded and cultured, with amazing outdoor spaces and a brace of stylish, arty neighbourhoods where you can eat, shop and play. Luckily, there are several ways to experience Denver’s funky, indie buzz, while still paying homage to its Western roots.
Culture that differs by neighbourhoods
The cool, new Denver is multifaceted and varies by neighbourhood. Happening LoDo (Lower Downtown) is the heart of city nightlife, home to bars and eateries including the best tapas this side of Madrid. The Golden Triangle has some of the city’s most outstanding museums, and Uptown, Denver’s “hippest hood”, has some of the city’s best restaurants. The Art District on Santa Fe Drive is the place to browse galleries, while “SoBo” (South Broadway) offers an eclectic, bohemian mix of antiques, avant-garde clothing, second-hand books and a vibrant late-night music scene.
An energetic arts scene
Besides brilliant museums like the Denver Art Museum and the challenging Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver is known for its “art walks” where Santa Fe and SoBo galleries open their doors for free on the first Friday of each month. The huge Denver Center for the Performing Arts hosts performances of opera, ballet, theatre and more. Jazz is big in city nightspots, and there are free concerts in city parks during the summer.
A mecca for outdoor enthusiasts
With three hundred days of sun a year, this is a city where it is cool to keep fit. Winters here are cold and crisp, with enough snowfall to be decorative. Summers are dry and sun-soaked. It is a perfect climate to get outdoors and into the Rockies -- under an hour’s drive away -- for winter skiing and summer hiking.
Closer to the city, people run and rollerblade in the summer, cross-country ski in the winter and take to the miles of city bike paths year-round. Perhaps the most incredible sporting facility is at Confluence Park where kayakers play in the rapids of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River, right in the heart of the city.
Egalitarian Denver also has every kind of free public park: walking parks, skate parks, bike parks, dog parks, lake parks, grassy parks. There is something for everyone, from the playgrounds at Cheesman Park to the waterskiing at Sloan’s Lake to the tranquil natural landscapes of Bear Creek.
An increasingly diverse population
High-tech industries have brought thousands of interstaters and internationals to Denver, which has built a highly-educated, outward-looking populace that celebrates immigrant cultures. You can get your news from local newspapers published in Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Russian; and you are just as likely to eat Ethiopian (or Brazilian, Greek, Thai, Moroccan or Nepalese) here as you are those notorious bulls testicles.
An environmentally aware city
Denver runs the US’ largest alternative-fuel public transport fleet and has some radical plans to become even more environmentally friendly – such as planting one million trees by 2025. For visitors this means the pleasure of strolling down pedestrianized streets like the 16th St Mall, or hopping on a bike from the city’s bike sharing operation to cruise along leafy avenues.
Funky places to stay
Many of the city’s old, classic hotels have had contemporary makeovers, and the vibe here is smart sophistication. Try the Oxford in LoDo where you can sample Denver’s best seafood at McCormick’s Fish House, or the excellent Brown Palace Hotel. Coming here for the arts? Then stay at Hotel Teatro, artily decorated with photos of productions at Denver’s performing arts centre.
Denver’s Western roots
Despite their new-found cool, Denverites are not afraid to remain (just a touch) pearl-buttoned Western. They proudly celebrate their annual National Western Stock Show with rodeos, long horns and a cattle drive through the city. And if you ask any Denverite for the city’s must-try restaurant, they may well name the Buckhorn Exchange, where you can eat elk, buffalo or Rocky Mountain Oysters while taxidermed creatures watch you from the walls.