Creative Denver: art and music in the Mile High City

Maybe it’s the thin crisp air, the amazing views or the clean mountain water, but Denverites are an exceptionally creative bunch and the city brims with opportunities to indulge in your artsy side. From monthly art walks to multiple design districts to geological marvels that double as music venues, Denver has an art scene that will keep you coming back for more.

Artist Emanuel Martinez works on retouching his mural "Confluent People" in Denver © Craig F. Walker / Getty Images

Denver's wide world of visual art

The Denver Art Museum or DAM, is an art lover’s wonderland made up of two unique buildings, each with interesting exterior architecture . The modernist Martin Building designed by Italian architect Gio Ponti is a slightly stoic structure that houses the museum's permanent collections of global and Native American Art. Note that the Martin Building it is currently under renovation and will start opening in phases starting June 2020. The newer Hamilton Building, vaguely reminiscent of Superman’s fortress of solitude, was designed by Daniel Libeskind. The Hamilton holds a more modern collection of art, traveling exhibits and a wonderful hands-on artists studio.

Peruse global and Native American art at the Denver Art Museum © Gnagel / Getty Images

Also check out the Clyfford Still Museum, home to the entirety of artist Clyfford Still’s lifetime work. The story alone is worth a visit. One of the founders of American Abstract Expressionism, Still ended his relationship with art galleries in 1951 and only rarely was his work seen in public; when he died, all of his art was completely sealed away. As a result, the Clyfford Still Museum houses 95 percent of the artist's work in a single collection.

If you're up for more, head to the The Museum of Contemporary Art, which hosts avant-garde exhibits in a uniquely organized space – check out the Mixed Taste talks for a night of seemingly mismatched lectures that always have entertaining results.

Denver's independent art scene

Denver has a thriving independent art scene as well, with most neighborhoods featuring galleries and artist studios of all kinds. Many of the neighborhoods host Friday Art Walks on the first Friday of every month, particularly in summer. The Santa Fe Arts District is Denver's original art hub, but Golden Triangle and RiNo are fast making a name for themselves. 

Galleries abound, but be sure to check out Leon for amazing local shows and fantastic collaborations. 

Many of Denver's walls are covered with all forms of public art © Helen H. Richardson / Getty Images

Go on a street art tour

If you’re paying any attention at all as you’re out and about, you’ll notice the incredible amount of public art festooning buildings and parks all over the city. From murals to sculptures, the city is well decorated. Take a mural tour or spend some time looking for all the oversized sculptures (we like the giant blue bear the best). Keep your eyes peeled for the work of local artist Jaime Molina, whose haunting faces mixed with geometric patterns and colorful southwest-inspired designs are the very definition of Denver art. 

Public art has gained in popularity so much that the massive chalk art festival, held every summer in Larimer Square, has become one of the city's favorite art events. It gets crowded, so go early. Alternatively, the River North neighborhood, or RiNo as its called hosts the annual Crush Walls. This art exhibit features the work of a variety of artists who paint large murals throughout the district. The murals are up for at least a year a can be easily enjoyed on walking tour.

What’s new

The fabulously strange and interactive art installation/music venue Meow Wolf  is planning its second location in Denver. Scheduled to open sometime in 2021, this exhibition will be a completely different immersive art experience than the one in Santa Fe, but still have the same interactive vibe. Rumor has it that Denver's iteration will blend virtual reality and live performance, but what that means remains to be discovered.

Wonderbound dance company hosts open rehearsals to watch the artists create © Amanda Tipton

The best of Denver's performing arts

Denver's art scene isn't limited to the visual realm – the city is home to numerous stages performing art groups, and high quality shows are frequently on the calendar. The Denver Performing Arts Complex is one of the largest performing arts centers in the US, and it's home to the Denver Center for Performing Arts, Colorado Ballet, Colorado Symphony and the Colorado Opera. DPAC hosts year-round performances and traveling productions in its five theaters and on its outdoor lawn. 

But these institutions aren’t the only names making the scene in Denver. Contemporary ballet company Wonderbound works with local musicians, the Colorado Symphony and a slew of creatives to offer stunning performances as well as open (and free) studio rehearsals.  If theater is more to your taste, Buntport Theater Company is a small theater group that puts on truly interesting contemporary productions in an incredible performing space.

Catch a concert at the famous Red Rocks Amphitheater © John P Kelly / Getty Images

The music behind Mile High City

And, of course, we'd be remiss not to mention the city's music scene, which continues to define the entire country's music. You can’t talk about Denver without mentioning the iconic music venue Red Rocks – from Gregory Alan Isakov to Nathaniel Ratliffe and the Nightsweats to the Lumineers, truly incredibly acts hail from Denver and routinely grace the stage. If you're lucky, you perhaps can catch one of your favorite bands in collaboration with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.

If you like local bands, beautiful outdoor surroundings and the city’s best food trucks, check out City Park Jazz held most Sundays from June to August. It’s a hometown favorite event for families and friends and a perfect slice of Denver summer. 

Or, if an old school jazz joint is more your speed, head to the legendary El Chapultapec. It opened in 1951 and Ella Fitzgerald played there – need we say more? 

Lunch hour at Los Chingones in Denver © John Leyba / Getty Images

The art of the taco

While taco shops might seem like an odd feature for this list, Denver has embraced taco-making as an art form. The harmonious blend of Latinx culture and ever-hungry crowds of outdoorsy folks fuels this evolving taco canvas.

For classic tacos, try El Taco de Mexico. Family-owned and -operated since 1985, this place is a Denver institution deserving of the top spot on our list. 

For interesting taco variations, try Los Chingones. Chef Troy Guard has grown his ‘badass’ (his word, not ours) cocktail and taco concept to include five locations throughout Denver. At the original RiNo location, we like the jalapeño popper taco washed down with a T&T.

For the trendiest digs, try Tacos, Tequila, Whisky. The lines at the City Park location used to wrap around the corner all day, every day and now two additional locations in the Highlands and Governor’s Park make it a little easier to score a spicy snack.

For the most family-friendly atmosphere, go to Adelita’s. With plenty of booth seating, a great wait staff and excellent food, it’s easy to grab a fish taco and a margarita while the youngsters nosh on quesadillas and color happily. It’s a little noisy, but so are kids.