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By Ted Alan Stedman

I don’t know if  the 2008 DNC spotlight had something to do with it, but a major travel magazine’s Denver profile recently declared the Mile High City has finally shed its “cow town” image.

Well, thanks for that news flash. (Note to writer: you’re 15 years late).

Granted, Denver’s roots are its western heritage. But I’ve yet to hear a single “Yee-ha” or “Howdy pardner” since I gladly traded LA for Denver in ’94. Spend some time downtown and I guarantee it’s the Vespa scooter brigades, tragically hip bike messengers, notebook-wielding urbanites, weekend revelers and too-fit-for-their-own-good Coloradans that’ll stick in your mind. The gleaming high-rises framed by the chiseled Rocky Mountains aren’t bad, either.

Denver visitor information gives the skinny on most of the sites and events visitors would want to check out, including action-packed downtown districts, cultural arts centers, pro sport facilities, recreational trails, Denver International Airport, the city’s public transportation, lodging and so on.

Here’s my take on what not to miss when you visit Denver:

Mount an urban safari. There are three pedestrian-friendly downtown districts that beg exploration in this compact city. Hit Larimer Square‘s specialty boutiques, trendy restaurants and sidewalk cafés, along with great bars and a comedy club. Lower Downtown, or LoDo, is Denver’s boomtown, and you can put in miles exploring the renovated warehouses that have morphed into 90 brewpubs, sports bars, restaurants and coffeehouses, as well as Coors Field. Downtown’s centerpiece is the 16th Street Mall, a 16-block pedestrian and transit mall that’s the city’s retail core lined with shops, bars, eateries, bookstores, theaters, Denver Pavilions, the Tabor Center –- you name it. The mall’s shuttles are free, and so is the public Wi-Fi Zone.

Play ball
. Denver’s a gonzo sports town (having eight pro teams does that) that hosts pro games year-round. The ultra-modern Pepsi Center, right downtown, is best known as the home of the NBA Denver Nuggets and NHL Colorado Avalanche. Flanked by hip watering holes and being easily accessible, it’s also a workhorse event center that hosts world-class concerts –- and the 2008 Democratic National Convention. In LoDo, Coors Field is home to baseball’s Colorado Rockies, the National League Pennant winner in 2007. The stadium has the nostalgic feel of a classic ballpark mixed with state-of-the-art technology (and the Sand Lot Brewpub –- only one of its kind), and you won’t find a prettier ball field anywhere. On the edge of downtown, the sprawling INVESCO Field at Mile High is where the NFL’s Denver Broncos hang their hallowed helmets. Denver goes certifiably nuts when the Broncos play (a.k.a. “Broncomania”). And there’s no doubt when it’s game day, when the city is saturated in the team’s trademark orange, blue and white colors.

Find culture. The striking exterior of the Denver Art Museum is a hint of what lies within: exhibit after exhibit of amazingvisual art presented in equally striking display space. Cruising DAM’s locale is just as cool. It’s part of the Denver Civic Center Cultural Complex, where world-class productions and premieres are staged regularly at The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, such as the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Opera Colorado, Colorado Ballet, Best of Broadway productions and more. And those enormous figures towering outdoors? The giant-sized broom and dustpan (The Big Sweep), the humongous Scottish Calf and Cow, the gigantic sculpture known as Dancers, and monstrous bear leaning on the Colorado Convention Center? More examples of whimsical contemporary public art in Denver.

Pedal the paths.
Besides the country’s largest city park system, Denver’s a free-wheeling paradise with a whopping 850 miles of urban trails dedicated to cyclists and the rest of the self-propelled crowd. Best bets for exploring the heart of the city? The 40-mile Cherry Creek Bike Path amounts to a Tour de Denver, coursing along the shady creek and below street level with plenty of cut offs to parks, pubs, swanky and bohemian shopping areas alike. Another is the Greenway Trail, a paved route following the South Platte River for almost 30 miles. It connects a medleyof riverside parks and intersects the Cherry Creek Bike Path at Confluence Park –- the historical site where the City of Denver was founded.

Ride a river. The South Platte (French for “flat”) River runs smack dab through downtown, and it’s a great place to get wet and learn or hone river riding skills. Confluence Kayaks is right by Confluence Park and you can get on-the-sport lessons or take guided outings with the crew of avid paddlers. There’s an armada of man-made kayak chutes and other river structures made for kayak play, so you can stay put in one spot and ride the eddies to your heart’s content. Or you can book a guided run using touring kayaks, inflatables and even canoes for a 12-mile float from nearby Chatfield Reservoir into downtown.

Follow the Ale Trail. Colorado’s the top beer producing state, a distinction largely due to brewing behemoths Molson Coors and Anheuser Bush. But in Denver, there’s no need to quaff the commercial stuff with all the downtown breweries and pubs that make some of the country’s best beers. Most are within walking distance. The short list includes Wynkoop Brewing Company, Sandlot Brewery at Coors Field, Breckenridge Brewery, Rock Bottom Brewery, Chop House & Brewery, Great Divide Brewing Company, Bull & Bush Brewery and Vine Street Pub. We’re talking serious suds here (especially potent if you’re not used to Denver’s thin air), so take it easy on yourself and ride a bike or take the free Mall shuttle.

Catch music. Hands down, the most scenic concert venue in the country (world?) has to be Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre. The Beatles, U2, Police, Lyle Lovett … the list is endless of top talent that has played here. This absolutely unique, 9,450-seat venue is flanked by spectacular 300-foot red sandstone rock formations, and the outdoor seating has see-forever views looking out over Denver and the Great Plains beyond. Red Rocks is open year-round and includes an interactive visitor center with educational displays, a restaurant and an official Colorado Welcome Center. And make sure to see the park itself. The dramatic Hogback rock formation is incredible, plus there are numerous trails for hiking and mountain biking (note: bring a camera).

Shop on a spree. A shopaholic’s Nirvana could be the chic shops lining the 16-square blocks of shady tree-lined streets in Cherry Creek North. Here you’ll find the region’s largest selection of independently owned businesses, featuring upwards of 350 boutiques, spas, salons restaurants, bars and galleries. Between the sunken gardens, sidewalk café seating, cornucopia of flowers and glamour types looking like refugees from Rodeo Drive, you don’t even have to buy anything to have fun here.

Liquefy. You can swim with the fishes in landlocked Denver if you head to the Downtown Aquarium. There’s a broad taxonomical resume of critters that swim, slink, dart, swing, climb and crawl –- more than 15,000 fish, mammals and even swimming Sumatran tigers. You can even swim with moray eels, a 250-pound Queensland grouper and 400 of their closest friends in the Under The Sea exhibit. The upscale restaurant is incredible, next to a massive aquarium (don’t order fish if you’ve got a conscience, though), and the ultra-swank Dive Lounge is one of my favorites for its cool tranquility.

Walk for art. Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe is the place to be on First Fridays each month, when a swell of art aficionados (OK, some party types as well) take advantage of the open-door policy of the galleries and drop in to chat with artists and, on occasion, enjoy a glass of wine while perusing art. This unique, homegrown and totally indie art and cultural district counts over 40 galleries, restaurants and shops located just south of downtown Denver, Colorado. The artsy enclave is filled with contemporary, emerging and traditional art including painting, sculpture, photography, mixed media, graphic art and textiles.

Be a thrill rider. So you like to scare yourself silly? Denver’s got your E-ticket, and it’s called Elitch Gardens, right on the banks of the South Platte River across from the Pepsi Center, Downtown Aquarium and within an easy walk of central downtown. Its history stretches all the way back to the 19th century, but this theme park is entirely 21st century modern. You’ll swoon over dozens of state-of-the-art coasters, several great family rides and the Island Kingdom Water Park.

Here are some photos taken around Denver:

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

Related Orbitz resources:

By ski, bike, kayak, safari vehicle and on foot, Ted Alan Stedman has
journeyed in six continents and hopes to soon close in on number seven:
Antarctica. The Denver-based writer is a former ski journalist for the
Rocky Mountain News, and these days is a regular contributor to Sport Diver, Islands, Sunset, Outside and Outdoor Photographer magazines.

Tagged: Denver

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