This was something of a radical departure for the Fifty States project – ticking off a new State in December, with a flying five day visit to a single city. Our New Year trip to Denver was only ever designed as a taster of Colorado (we’ll be going back there in 2020), and what a taste it was!
We flew into Denver a couple of days after Christmas. It was a bracing 2 degrees centigrade (35 fahrenheit for our American friends) when we arrived but nice and bright all the same. We’d become used to New Year trips to Scandinavia where the sun sets at 3 or 4pm, so to arrive at 4pm in bright sunshine was a nice change. We hopped on the 35 minute train from Denver International Airport and we were at Union Station before we knew it. Once we’d emerged from the toasty warmth of the Station we familiarised ourselves with what would become and old pal over the next few days – the Free Mall Ride. Its a pretty slow moving electric bus, but there’s about a million of them trundling up and down the otherwise almost completely pedestrianised 16th Street Mall. You can hop on and off at every block, and its completely free! We buzzed the 15 or so stops down to the block where our hotel was and jumped off.
Christmas and New Year is always a pricey time of year to pick a hotel so we’d plumped for a pretty basic option – the Hyatt House Downtown. It turned out nice enough though, our room on the 29th floor had views of the Rockies (on a clear day) and was very large. The free breakfast was basic but did a job, and the pool while small was perfectly nice. Most importantly the location was good for most of the things we wanted to do while in Denver. Once we’d dropped our bags off, a little bleary eyed, we made the short walk to see an old friend – Mellow Mushroom under who’s charms we’d first fallen in Kentucky in 2014. It might be super cheesy but it does delicious pizza (for vegans and meaties alike) and has an incredible range of Colorado and national craft beer.
On our first morning we went to see our almost next door neighbour – Denver’s Big Blue Bear. He can be found outside the Colorado Convention Center, peering inside and we couldn’t blame him – the temperature had already dropped below zero. We swung by the Tattered Cover Book Store (not quite the equal of Powell’s in Portland but still a very lovely bookshop) and Rockmount Ranch Wear where Hannah picked up a very snazzy jacket. Our first Denver lunch stop wasn’t exactly a Colorado classic but Blue Sushi Sake Grill do excellent fresh sushi rolls.
After lunch it was time to hit up some of Denver’s famous craft beer scene. First stop was First Draft – a “pour your own” craft beer joint. Josh was in heaven. 20+ taps of the best Colorado has to offer, and all at the volume you want – as much or as little of each beer as you fancy – though you do have to pay at the end so discretion is advised! Then we made the ten minute walk back into downtown to try out Falling Rock (great beer but no small pours), Wynkoop (good beer brewed on the premises) and Oskar Blue’s (more non-Oskar Blue’s beer than Oskar Blue’s beer – but still very good!). To soak up some of the high quality craft beer we had a sizeable Mexican meal at the very tasty Illegal Pete’s. This was all in preparation for a Fifty States First – basketball! In previous trips we’ve sampled Major League Soccer (in DC), NFL (in Chicago), college football (in Madison) and NASCAR (in Charlotte), but never b-ball. The San Antonio Spurs were in town to play the in-form Denver Nuggets and we had a blast! The Nuggets won 102-99 and it was tense right up to the last. It won’t be our last basketball game!
The next morning we picked up an Uber out to the Botanic Gardens. It wasn’t exactly the best time of year to check out all the beautiful outdoor plants but it was almost completely empty and the greenhouses were still beautiful, the Japanese garden and lake were peaceful and very pretty in the freezing cold. The bunny rabbits running around were an unexpected bonus!
We had to get another Uber back towards town for our second culture-stop of the day – the Denver Art Museum. Its an impressive building from the outside, all angles and sheet metal. Inside its pretty cavernous and for the space there’s actually not all that much art on display. However, what is on display is really good – we both found there was a lot of the kind of styles of art that we both enjoy. The giant dustpan and brush outside was fun too.
Close to the art museum was our lunch stop – the incredibly popular veggie joint City O’ City. We hadn’t made a reservation so despite turning up before 12pm we still had a 45 minute wait for a table. It was good tasty food though and after the wait we’d built up a good appetite! City o City is just around the corner from the Colorado State Capitol and you know we can’t resist a good State Capitol visit when its so close. The Capitol building itself is somewhere between Wisconsin/Rhode Island levels of grand and North Dakota/Nebraska levels of unassuming. We’d put it in the middling category with New Hampshire. It was time for some more craft beer by this point and boy did we have an afternoon planned.
The first stop was Cerebral Brewing. Out on its own a little in the Congress Park neighbourhood Cerebral is in a kind of nerdy science themed tap room (think beers served in scientific beakers), but the beer speaks for itself – it really is some of the best we’ve had. The Black Project was stop number two, all the way down in Platt Park – they brew mainly spontaneously fermented beers and they do it very well. Close to there is Trve Brewing – in a heavy metal themed taproom which we loved, as well as loving the beer. A short walk away from there was Denver’s finest Tiki bar – Adrift – so naturally we couldn’t resist stopping in for a cocktail before dinner at Marquis Pizza (warning – Marquis does good pizza but there’s nowhere to sit!). After woolfing down our pizzas we had one more beer stop – Woods Boss Brewing in Five Points before a well-earned rest.
With the jetlag subsiding the next morning was much more relaxed, but it was time for a doughnut. We’d come to love Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland so when we found out there was an outpost in Denver we just had to pick one up there too. We queued up and bagged our tasty baked goods before making the ten minute walk to our vegan lunch stop – Watercourse. Naturally being an uber-trendy vegan place there was another wait for a table – but this time only 20 minutes or so. Watercourse is very definitely vegan only as opposed to veggie – so no (dairy) cheese here folks! The food is no less hearty though, the Cuban sandwich Josh had was absolutely massive – and tasty. After lunch we headed to the River North district – RiNo – and the rooftop New Belgium Brewing bar at The Source Hotel. The beers, some brewed in the hotel itself, were brilliant and the views were cool too.
Just downstairs from New Belgium is the Crooked Stave taproom. Crooked Stave is another largely sour beer brewery and one of who’s beer has regularly crossed the Atlantic for many years (sour beer travels long distances a lot better than hoppy beer). From there it was a bar crawl to Bierstadt (delicious slow-pour pilsner), Epic (great variety of styles) and Ratio (disappointing lack of small pours again). Then came the highlight of the day – that we nearly missed entirely – the Goed Zuur sour beer bar and cafe. The range of beers here was quite possibly the equal of any of the bars we’ve visited in America – and not just sour beers either. Add to that the brilliant range of vegan snacks on offer and you’ve got yourself a top notch boozing joint! The vegan snacks didn’t even spoil our dinner at Steuben’s, a 50s-style diner serving up traditional fayre – the highlight being the fried Brussels sprouts – genuinely superb!
As with so many places, finding entertainment on New Year’s Eve can be a challenge so when it came to the 31st December we had some work to do. In the end we settled on some more Mellow Mushroom pizza, some beers at Great Divide and then a movie (in some VERY plush and reasonably priced seats) at the Denver Pavilions. In the evening, thanks to a recommendation from the Oskar Blue’s barman, we made a stop at the brilliantly named Cruise Room cocktail lounge. Its incredibly plush with beautiful murals on the wall, its pricey but well worth it. Later we had a table booked at Freshcraft, who rather over-promised and under-delivered when it came to the rare craft beers they said they would be serving (not everything was available when requested). But it was a nice evening nonetheless. As midnight approached we braved the minus 13 degree temperatures and took in the cute but quite underwhelming fireworks on the 16th St Mall. It was a chilly but fun way to ring in 2019!
On New Year’s Day morning we took a quiet stroll into Civic Center Park to take in the Ai Wei-Wei exhibit and crunch around in the snow before we headed back to the airport. Five days in Denver was just about enough to pack in all the great food, beer and culture this funky city has to offer. It is accessible, reasonably priced and really great fun. We’ll be coming back to Colorado before we know it!
Rate the State: 9/10
Good for: outdoors living, beer, sports
Bad for: not much really – a distinct lack of beaches?