The 52 Places Traveler: In Denver, a Mile High but Down to Earth

Clockwise from top right: Rajas and calabacitas enchilada at Kachina Cantina at the Maven Hotel; the Clyfford Still Museum; bike shares outside the flagship REI store; morning in Confluence Park.

Our columnist, Jada Yuan, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2018 list. This dispatch brings her to Denver, Colo.; its Downtown area took the No. 30 spot on the list and the city is the 12th stop on Jada’s itinerary.

The silhouette of a massive construction crane loomed against the brilliant reds and purples of a Colorado sunset sky. “This is the classic view of Denver right now,” my friend Rachel Fleming said.

Ms. Fleming is an anthropologist who’s lived in Denver for a decade and works in the area’s booming tech industry. We played violin together as teenagers in Santa Fe, N.M., and like many of my high school buddies, she left the West only to wind her way back there because she missed the mountains — because once they’re in your blood, you always do.

The construction crane was looming over The Source, one of the many gourmet food halls that have popped up around the city in the last five years. It’s in the River North Arts District (RiNo), an epicenter for microbreweries, fancy restaurants, new apartment buildings and abundant street art a 10-minute walk from Lower Downtown (LoDo).

“Downtown, I think, has added at least twice as many skyscrapers as it had 10 years ago,” said Ms. Fleming. “Most of that area used to be abandoned train yards and industrial buildings and now you go by and see people jogging. It’s like, ‘Oh wow, people actually live here.’”

My mom grew up in Colorado Springs, an hour’s drive south of here. I’ve spent the past 22 years visiting the state regularly to see friends or to go snowboarding. I hadn’t spent much time in Denver’s urban center, but of my 52 Places destinations, I was sure it would feel the most familiar. I didn’t know, though, that it would remind of another home of mine: New York City.

Here’s a starter guide to the city’s rich art, food and outdoors scenes. Bring good walking shoes.

The Source, an “artisan” market housed in a reclaimed 1880s iron foundry with a new skyscraper hotel attached, was one of three food halls I went to in six days. Industrial in design, its centerpiece is a fresh and tasty sit-down restaurant, Acorn. I’d make a return trip for another flight from Crooked Stave, a brewery specializing in wild and sour beers.

My favorite was the more casual Central Market, set in an airy, refurbished 14,000 square-foot building in RiNo. It offers take-home butchery and seafood — as well as gourmet pizza, salads, and ice cream. (It felt most analogous to St. Roch Market in New Orleans, where I’d been on stop No. 1 of this trip.) Also enticing, particularly for the younger set, is Avanti F&B in the hip Lower Highlands (LoHi) neighborhood across the river from downtown. A collective test kitchen for local chefs, it has a terrific view, outdoor fire pits and a lively bar scene that rages till 1 a.m. on weekends. Save room for the $4 s’more with Nutella and bacon from the Brava! Pizzeria della Strada stand.

In contrast to those sprawling food halls, the entrance to my one can’t-miss restaurant of the trip, El Five, was located in an actual parking garage in LoHi. Go early or make a reservation and you can breeze past the host and up the elevator to the fifth floor (L5, get it?). The Mediterranean tapas cuisine was excellent, but you’re there for the spectacular three-sided views. Best of all is the wallpaper, made of reclaimed Egyptian movie posters, surrounding diners with forlorn, beautiful faces who look like they could use a drink.

The $54 million renovation of Union Station, a 1914-vintage train depot, has turned it into something like New York’s Ace Hotel — a hip gathering spot — only with transportation schedules. The station’s lobby is filled with library-like long tables and comfy leather chairs where a diverse cross-section of the city types away on their laptops. I loved the farm-to-table sandwiches at light-filled Mercantile Dining & Provision so much I went twice.

The same company behind Union Square, Sage Hospitality, also runs Denver’s newest hip hotel, The Maven, where I stayed (for $169 to $209, plus tax and a $20 a night amenities fee) next to Coors Fields on a historic site called the Dairy Block that once housed a dairy. The lobby has a similar library-like feel, plus an indoor Airstream trailer that sells coffee and breakfast burritos.

You know a hotel is doing something right when museum directors ask if you’ve visited it. The Art, a Hotel, where I stayed one night for $235 has a mesmerizing Leo Villareal light-design installation at its entrance, one of Deborah Butterfield’s life-size metal horses that looks like it was woven with twigs, and a video of dogs going up and down the elevator with you. It’s in walking distance of all major art institutions.

Tired of seeing art displayed in plain white rooms? Make a special trip to the vastly expanded and newly reopened Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art. Named after the late abstract painter and Denver resident Vance Kirkland, it features the work of some 1,500 artists and designers, laid out in a unique salon style. Diamond-shaped chairs by Frank Lloyd Wright and an undulating cardboard ottoman from Frank Gehry might be next to a painting from an obscure Colorado surrealist. Allthe paintings are from Colorado artists, and the collection ofmidcentury modern decorative pottery is particularly charming. Organizing principals are loosely chronological, and never boring.

The will of the pioneering Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still (1904-1980) stipulated that his collection be awarded to an American city that presented the best plan for a museum solely dedicated to showing it in its entirety. Denver won, and the result is the Clyfford Still Museum, an impressive concrete structure with huge walls for displaying the artist’s immense canvases, and textured ceilings that let in daylight in fractured patterns.

The best way to see Denver’s booming art scene is to simply walk around RiNo, where many businesses commission murals to draw in customers, and an art event literally puts a fresh coat of paint on the neighborhood each year — resulting in something amazing to see on nearly every public wall. I toured with Alex Roth, a Colorado native who works for the luxury travel club, Inspirato, and offered to be my guide. He also introduced me to the art of wandering into Denver’s many microbreweries, such as Our Mutual Friend, which itself had a mural storefront of neon-colored camouflage.

It’s important to note that RiNo is as much a story of gentrification as it is of growth. In 2005, artists who’d moved into the area’s abandoned industrial buildings came up with the name as a way to sell more art. Commercial and residential real estate followed, and have pushed into the historically black parts of town — particularly the Five Points neighborhood — to significant controversy.

Confluence Park, which reopened last year after a two-year renovation, is really more like a set of river trails. Pop by for contemplative views of the water, and to see a cross section of the city, by bike or foot. The unprepared can pick up something at the flagship REI store right on the park and a tourist attraction in itself, built in a landmark former power company plant.

You don’t have to go far for a more immersive natural experience. Red Rocks Amphitheater — 30 minutes away by shuttle or car on concert nights — is also a great place for hiking and watching the moon rise over the plains. And Chautauqua Park in Boulder, an introduction to the vast array of hiking and rock climbing in the Flatiron Mountains, is accessible from Denver by a 50-minute Regional Transportation Denver bus plus a short taxi or ride share to the trailhead. The evening I went, we happened upon dozens of juniors and seniors from Silver Creek High School in nearby Longmont taking their prom pictures. Trudging through spring snow in a ball gown and heels seems to be a particularly Coloradan rite of passage.

Have a car? Drive to spectacular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park or Estes Park, or take a drive on the Peak to Peak highway above Boulder. Arapahoe Basin and Loveland Ski Areas are both about an hour’s drive of the city and involve less time in traffic than better-known resorts.

Everything I know from having grown up in the sprawling American West led me to assume that of course I’d need to rent a car in Denver. I immediately regretted that decision. Street parking is nearly impossible downtown. I forewent my hotel's valet parking for what Ithought was a cheaper option at a nearby parking garage and still woundup with an $112 bill for five nights. Lyft or walking almost alwaysseemed like the better option, particularly if I wanted to have a drinkwith a meal. The only time I used the car was going to and from theairport.

If you’re going to the mountains a lot, yes, get one. Otherwise take the shiny new light rail from the airport to Union Station (40 minutes and $9 each way) and relax knowing there’s a bus to Boulder, a train to Golden, and a shuttle to ski areas, plus ride shares whenever you need them.

Jada Yuan will be traveling to every place on this year’s 52 Places to Go list. For more coverage or to send Jada tips and suggestions, please follow her on Twitter at @jadabird and on Instagram at @alphajada.

Previous dispatches:

1: New Orleans

2: Chattanooga, Tenn.

3. Montgomery, Ala.

4. Disney Springs, Fla.

5. Trinidad and St. Lucia and San Juan, P.R.

6. Peninsula Papagayo, Costa Rica

7. Kuélap, Peru

8. Bogotá, Colombia

9. La Paz, Bolivia

10. Los Cabos, Mexico

11. Chile’s Route of Parks

Next dispatch: Rogue River, Ore.

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