When I first moved to Denver, I came on a whim – my only experience of the city was a brief weekend during a cross-country road trip. But after bouncing from coast to coast and across the southern border for years, I figured Denver would be a good place for a short-term stint.
Almost 15 years later, I’m still here and I have no plans to move. What I’ve found in Denver is an unexpected urban gem: a fast-growing city of locals and newcomers, revitalized neighborhoods and a rich cultural landscape.
The sunny days and outdoorsy ethos are an integral part of life here – people walk and cycle around the city, and green spaces dot the landscape. And, oh those mountains overlooking it all! Here's what I think it's most important for you to know about Denver before your visit.
1. Plan on a long weekend
Colorado’s biggest city buzzes with activity – it has a good mix of museums, theaters and sports arenas plus a hopping restaurant and nightlife scene. Choose a couple of things to do each day, including time to wander, and a long weekend should be plenty of time to get a sense of the city; it'll also leave you wanting to come back for more.
2. Pack layers
Though Denver’s weather is relatively mild year-round, it can change on a dime…snow melts quickly and summer evenings can become downright chilly. Bring layers, including a fleece and a warm hat, to stay comfortable. A pair of closed-toe shoes is a good idea too.
3. Experience the city on foot, bike and bus
Denver’s traffic can be onerous and parking can be expensive, especially downtown. Skip the rental car and navigate the city by foot, bike or public transportation. Most of the city’s sights are within a few miles of each other, which makes riding a bike or taking the bus easy.
4. Expect extra restaurant fees
Since Covid hit, Denver restaurants have increasingly added a pre-tax "cost-of-living fee" to diners’ bills to supplement staff wages. Often, it’s directed to non-tipped kitchen staff but sometimes it’s split amongst everyone. So should you still tip? In general, if the fee is 12% or less, a gratuity is still expected and very much appreciated.
5. Book (most) sporting event tickets in advance
Denverites take their big sports seriously with five professional teams calling it home. Tickets aren’t cheap and can sell out quickly, especially to the Broncos, Nuggets and Avalanche so be sure to buy those as soon as you know you’re headed to town. If you'd rather play it by ear, you can typically score decent same-day seats to a Rockies or Rapids game.
6. Ditto for big hit shows
Big ticket shows come to the impressive Red Rocks Amphitheater and Denver Performing Arts Complex (DPAC) every year and seats go fast. Peruse their websites before you arrive – if there’s a show you don’t want to miss, snag tickets early.
Otherwise, you can sometimes find last-minute tickets, especially for weeknight performances. If you don’t mind a gamble, try for rush seats at DPAC – tickets sold directly from the box office on performance day at a significant discount.
7. Budget extra time at the airport
One of the biggest and busiest airports in the world, Denver International Airport (DIA) takes a little extra time to navigate. A multi-year, billion-dollar upgrade to its main terminal, though, means navigating construction in the ticketing and security checkpoint areas. Allow for more time than your local airport, especially on the outbound flight, until it’s completed in 2028.
8. No need to dress up, even when you’re out on the town
Casual dress rules in Denver – a T-shirt, jeans and puffy jacket are the unofficial uniform. If you want to dress things up, wear a button down shirt and your nicest sneakers. No pressure though!
9. Drink the local brew
With over 150 craft breweries in the Denver metro area, local beer is pretty much the go-to drink, often sipped and savored like wine. So, if you enjoy beer, join the craft crowd. And if you must drink a mass-produced brew, make it a Coors. It’ll sting locals a little less.
10. Enjoy happy hour eats
Denverites take happy hour eats seriously and many high-end restaurants comply by offering incredible deals on small plates, an affordable way to eat gourmet. Go early to get a table – typically around 4pm Monday to Thursday.
11. Tread lightly when talking about politics
Coloradans value courtesy but can have strong, vocal opinions if pushed, especially on their home turf. Sure, Denver is one of the state’s liberal hubs, but opinions can run the gamut in this purple state. Be respectful and don’t assume people share your opinion.
12. Yes, you can smoke weed...but there are rules
The skunky-sweet smell of weed has become commonplace in Denver since recreational marijuana was legalized in 2012. As long as you’re over 21, it’s easy to partake as long as you follow the rules:
- Buy from a dispensary – they are the only businesses licensed to sell cannabis products. And with close to 200 in Denver, they’re easy to find. Bring your ID and cash (credit and debit cards aren’t accepted).
- Smoking marijuana in public is illegal, including parks, sidewalks and concert halls. Instead, partake in private or in places like a 420-friendly hotel or marijuana social club.
- You can only use weed in specially designated vehicles, like those on cannabis tours. It’s illegal to smoke it or have an open container of it in your car – think of it as alcohol and keep the container shut until you get where you’re going
- Don’t drive if you’re high. You could really hurt someone and face a DUI charge too. Take an Uber or taxi instead. For a deeper dive on everything cannabis, check out the Colorado Pot Guide.
13. Acclimate to the elevation
Sitting 5280 feet above sea level, it’s common for visitors to the Mile High City to experience altitude sickness. Symptoms are typically mild but can include light-headedness, slight headaches and fatigue.
Take it easy the first couple days to give yourself time to acclimatize to the elevation; staying hydrated helps too. If you experience severe nausea, dizziness and continued headaches, consult a doctor and/or get to a lower altitude.
14. The sun is no joke
Denver is one of the sunniest cities in the county, enjoying about 300 days of sunshine each year. Add to that the high elevation (which enhances the sun’s intensity) and you’ve got a recipe for a nasty sunburn. Cover up, slather on sunscreen, and consider wearing a billed hat.
If you’ll be exercising or walking a lot, copy the locals and carry a refillable water bottle. You’ll save cash (not to mention the environment) and stay hydrated.
15. In summer, beware of the hail
Colorado’s Front Range lies in the heart of "Hail Alley," where the nation’s highest number of hailstorms occur. Take cover if one hits! In 2017, a storm of baseball-sized hail hit metro Denver, causing a record-breaking $2 billion in damages in just minutes (including totaling my beloved blue Subaru!).
16. Tent cities are a thing
Tent cities or collections of makeshift shelters are a common sight in and around downtown Denver, and are a reflection of the city’s ongoing homelessness crisis. While these unhoused communities don’t necessarily pose a safety problem to passersby, the people living there are particularly vulnerable to issues like drug abuse and mental health crises.