Overview

Denver, Colorado, is often associated with the Old West, but the New West has left a more visible mark. Modern Denver is the financial, business, administrative and transportation center of the Rocky Mountain region. The Denver area is a major livestock market and headquarters to mining companies. Denver's leading manufacturers produce aeronautic, telecommunication, electronic and other high-technology products.

Thanks to its wealth of nearby ski and mountain resorts, national parks and frontier historical sites, Denver is also an important tourist center. Denver attractions draw numerous visitors every year. Sports fans also flock to Denver to watch its many professional teams.

A skyline of gleaming glass graces downtown, and even the historic areas shine with fresh varnish. Nowhere is this clearer than in LoDo—Denver's Lower Downtown District—where run-down warehouses have been renovated into classy Denver attractions such as jazz clubs, bookstores, restaurants and art galleries. High-rises offer chic downtown living alongside historic buildings that have been transformed into lofts. It all takes place against the glorious backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.

Denver's rapid growth hasn't been without consequences, however. Air pollution is a serious problem, and increased traffic around the city and into the mountains is a major contributing factor. (Although the infamous "brown cloud" is not as dark as it used to be.) Still, Denverites consider the natural environment precious, and many spend their weekends skiing, biking, hiking and camping.

Balancing growth with environmental concerns has become a regional priority. Light-rail lines stretch out into Denver's suburbs to relieve traffic snarls, and open land inside and outside Denver has been set aside for parks and recreation areas, including an excellent network of cycling trails.

Geography

Many people are surprised to learn that Denver is not actually in the mountains. It's located on a high plateau about 15 mi/24 km east of the foothills of the Rockies. The largest city in Colorado, Denver is situated in the central northern part of the state where the South Platte River meets Cherry Creek. The surrounding terrain is predominantly flatland plain, known as the Front Range. The city earned its nickname, The Mile High City, because its elevation (measured at the gold step on the state Capitol building) is one mile above sea level (5,280 ft/1,609 m).

Denver's downtown, nestled in a bend in the South Platte River, is a locus for modern office towers as well as turn-of-the-century warehouses. The majesty of the Rockies is ever-present. In fact, it's against state law to construct a building that would block the view of the mountains from the Capitol building. Capitol Hill (to the south and east of the Capitol building) is an eclectic urban neighborhood great for people-watching. Other must-see neighborhoods include Cherry Creek (about 4 mi/6 km south of downtown) and Washington Park (an urban park 7 mi/11 km south of downtown).

The Denver Tech Center (about 20 minutes southeast of downtown just off Interstate 25) is a large, upscale business and convention area housing industries related to technology and communications. The greater Highlands neighborhood just west of downtown has exploded in recent years with more and more development, new restaurants and bars. The SoBo (South Broadway, east of downtown) neighborhood is experiencing a resurgence of energy with shops, galleries, restaurants and bars on the edge of the Baker neighborhood filled with quaint Victorian-era homes.

History

Native Americans occupied the Denver area for centuries, but the growth of the city itself began in 1859, when flakes of gold were discovered near the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River. The resulting flood of fortune-seeking Gold Rush settlers made Denver a bona fide boomtown, prompting the federal government to establish Colorado as a territory in 1861. Denver was incorporated the same year, and named the state capital 20 years later.

During World War II, many federal offices moved to the city, and today Denver has the highest concentration of federal government employees after Washington, D.C. Many oil and gas companies relocated there in the 1970s, spurring the construction of dozens of extravagant high-rise office buildings in anticipation of future growth. When oil prices plummeted in the 1980s, the city's economy was hit hard.

Prosperity returned in the 1990s, as the city attracted more diverse industries. The opening of Coors Field in 1995 made downtown Denver an urban renewal success story—limited parking forced baseball fans to walk past shops and restaurants, encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit. In the years since, Denver has gained a new airport, three sports stadiums, a light-rail system, a convention center and a beautifully revitalized downtown.

Denver attracts a young, diverse and educated workforce. A robust economy and low unemployment make the city attractive to millennials, who make up the largest population group there.

Sightseeing

Downtown Denver is a refreshing change from most big cities, in part because it doesn't feel too big. Surrounding a mile-/kilometer-long outdoor pedestrian mall, Denver's downtown is home to three sports stadiums, more than 300 restaurants, high-rise office towers, century-old churches, grand hotels and modern museums. We suggest starting your tour at the gold-domed Colorado State Capitol Building, the most prominent structure downtown. From the Capitol, which anchors Civic Center Park between the arts district to the south and the shopping and historic areas to the northwest, most of the downtown sights are within walking distance.

Some of the city's loveliest and most noteworthy old buildings can be found in the 16th Street area. The remarkable Brown Palace Hotel is a sumptuous Gilded Age landmark and a point of special pride for Denverites. To the northwest is LoDo (short for Lower Downtown), where Denver began as a tent city and mining camp in 1859, which then gave way to brick warehouses in the 1900s. Today, it's home to book lovers, beer aficionados and oenophiles looking for brewpubs and restaurants. Check out Larimer Square and Writer Square—those are the oldest blocks downtown. The historic district ends at Union Station, Denver's beaux arts train station, which, in addition to still operating for its original purpose, now houses trendy bars, restaurants and shops.

The focal points of the arts district are as modern as LoDo is old—the multicolored Denver Public Library, the glass-enclosed Museum of Contemporary Art, the abstract Denver Art Museum and the unique Clyfford Still Museum.

Beyond downtown, you'll find an oasis of parks and recreation areas. City Park is home to the Denver Zoo and the acclaimed Museum of Nature and Science, with a planetarium and an IMAX theater. The Downtown Aquarium is part of a collection of attractions anchored by the Elitch Gardens Theme Park and the REI Denver flagship store, housed in the historic Denver Tramway Building.

Nightlife

Denver's local music scene is lively, with bands playing and DJs spinning almost every night of the week. Lower Downtown, between Wynkoop and Larimer streets, and from 14th to 20th streets, is chock-full of bars, taverns and pubs, ranging from retro martini lounges to hip dance clubs and smoky blues bars. Look (and listen) for up-and-coming rock, jazz, blues, country, folk and bluegrass artists in many bars around town. Most dance clubs close at 2 am.

Dining

Granted, it's easier to get a good steak in Denver than great seafood. But cuisines throughout the city run the gamut from delis and food carts downtown to the Vietnamese strip on South Federal, and Mexican restaurants can be found in just about every neighborhood.

Denver's fine-dining scene continues to mature, and its rotating crop of restaurants is gaining fame for the fresh young chefs, many of whom have been featured on the Food Network and in national magazines. Many Colorado chefs embrace the farm-to-table movement, health food and comfort food, in addition to standard cuisines. Be sure to visit the rich restaurant cluster in Larimer Square, Denver's hip, diverse and dense dining district.

It's said the Denver area brews more beer than any other city. As an alternative to the ubiquitous Coors, you might sample the wares at one of the many brewpubs in LoDo.

General dining times are 7-10 am for breakfast and 11:30 am-2:30 pm for lunch. Denver is not a city of night owls, and most restaurants stop serving dinner around 10 pm. Keep in mind that many downtown restaurants are closed on Sunday and even Monday.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one (excluding drinks, tax and tip): $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$25; $$$ = US$26-$35; $$$$ = more than US$35.

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